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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Geoffrey Woodcox's blog

Top 5 Most Fascinating World War I Artifacts in the State Historical Society Collection

One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to work with a truly world class collection. It is the product of over a century of collecting, and with nearly 74,000 artifacts, it never ceases to surprise me. We have lots of things that are just downright fascinating to me, not because of what they are, but because of what they represent and what they speak to. Items that give a human touch to an event or time period, or that give us an idea of what it was like to be there.


Our collection of World War I artifacts is rich with such items. The State Historical Society collected extensively during the war, bringing in artifacts from both individuals and from the US Government. I’d like to share my list of the top 5 most fascinating World War I artifacts, all items that will be on display in the Sperry Gallery at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum starting in August.


1. Orchestra Ticket and US Army Uniform Jacket (12455.1, 12455.3)

US Army Uniform JAcket and Orchestra Ticket

I recently completed a major project with our military uniform collection. I quickly learned to check the pockets of uniforms, because I started finding surprises. One of the best was an orchestra ticket from France crumpled into the breast pocket of a uniform jacket, like it had been forgotten there. What makes it fascinating to me? The last person to touch that ticket was probably the man who wore the uniform, and it may have even been when he was still in France. There is no way to know. It’s a very human thing to do, to forget things in your pockets, and it makes the artifact more personal to me.


2. French Combat Helmet with Battle Damage (1990.142.4)

French Combat Helmet

This French combat helmet, like many of our World War I artifacts, was sent to us directly from the battlefields of France by Major Dana Wright, a North Dakota soldier. What makes it unique is the actual battle damage—an entry hole from a bullet on the right side and an exit hole on the right front side. We don’t know how the helmet came into Major Wright’s possession, and we have no way of knowing if the French soldier who wore it survived, but it speaks firsthand to the conditions and dangers of World War I battlefields.


3. French Army Leave Slip (L815)

French Army Leave Slip

A resident of Fargo, Sydney Mason joined the French Army and served on the battlefields in the Ambulance Corps. In June 1917, he was granted leave to visit Paris. According to the pass, he was not allowed to carry luggage or take a horse. It fascinates me for two reasons: for one, I didn’t know that Americans joined the French Army during the war prior to seeing this. Also, how many of these documents actually survive? It is something that would commonly be disposed of after it was used, and many probably met that fate.


4. German Mourning Card (L92)

German Mourning Card

This mourning card was found in a German trench by a (then) private named Neil Reid, who was part of an American unit that had just pushed the Germans back. It was sent to his mother in North Dakota, who then loaned it to the State Historical Society. The card memorializes a 20- -year-old-German soldier killed in April 1918 named Peter Rappl. Was he a loved one of a soldier who had just retreated? These were often handed out to the families of fallen soldiers, but it is a question we can’t answer.


5. German Combat Helmet (1990.142.3)

German Combat Helmet

We have 18 German combat helmets in the collection and 22 dress helmets, making them far from rare. What makes this one unique? It was mailed to us directly from the Meuse Argonne Sector in France after being picked up on a battlefield there. I don’t mean that it was placed in a box and shipped to us—three 12-cent postage stamps and an address label were stuck to the side of the helmet. The label, which you can see in the photo above, is still attached.  Unfortunately the postage stamps were removed at some point in the last 100 years. I’ve heard you can mail almost anything as long as it has enough postage, but who knew you could drop a helmet in the mail and have it delivered?

You can see all of these items and many more in our World War I exhibit, which will be opening in August.

Acquiring Artifacts Related to Dakota Access Pipeline: Our Efforts to Document a Current Historic Event

History isn’t just in the past—it’s being made every day. Our mission includes collecting from the contemporary world because we want to preserve what it’s like to be a North Dakotan right now. We have a duty to document and preserve our current time for the historical record so future generations can study it and come to understand it.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project has many people expressing strong feelings on all sides of the issue. The scale and intensity of the pipeline protests are unprecedented in the state’s history. No matter what your stance, the controversy has become a significant part of North Dakota’s story and is worthy of preservation in the historical record.

We decided to start collecting objects related to this movement in November. We feared that if we waited too much longer, some of the objects that tell the story would be discarded by their owners.

Our public efforts started with a Dec. 23 article in the Bismarck Tribune, which outlined the objects we wanted to collect. We want to collect items to tell varying viewpoints of this ongoing story. Every perspective is equally important to help understand an event. We have reached out to private companies, law enforcement, state, tribal, and federal government agencies, counter protest groups, and people living at the camps to request donations. Our finalized list contained 28 groups or individuals to contact.

Museum aims to collect objects from porotest article

We first announced our collecting efforts with a December 23 article in the Bismarck Tribune, which gave a basic outline of what we wanted to collect and why we were gathering objects.

Donovan, Lauren. “Museum aims to collect objects from protest.” Bismarck Tribune, Dec. 23, 2016. Accessed Feb. 28, 2017. http://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/museum-aims-to-collect-objects-from-protest/article_a1b1fa2b-73cb-5c97-81ed-f3097b63ea99.html

Our first influx of artifacts came from a Feb. 3 staff visit to the Oceti Sakowin camp, which was being dismantled at the time. Someone at the camp directed us to a pile of items being discarded as residents left. We selected 37 objects that we felt encapsulated daily life at the camps, including sleeping bags, camp chairs, signs, and canned goods. We also took the opportunity to talk with people we encountered about what we were doing and encouraged them to donate.

Oceti Sakowin protest camp on February 3

Museum Division staff visited the Oceti Sakowin protest camp on February 3. It was very quiet (not to mention cold), as most people had left, and the camp was being dismantled. We collected 37 artifacts and spoke with residents of the camp about what we were doing.

Pile of discarded items

We primarily collected from a large pile of items that had been discarded as people left the camp. We tried to select items that would encapsulate camp life like a sleeping bag, camp chair, canned food, and hiking boots. Pictured is Registrar Len Thorson examining the pile.

In addition to artifacts, we are interested in recording interviews with people from all sides of the story so we can have firsthand accounts of their experiences, which will add another layer to the three dimensional artifacts we are collecting.

Our goal is to assemble a comprehensive index of an important event in North Dakota history. Do you have something to add to the narrative?

Signs and other objects from DAPL protest

We have received items from a variety of sources.